U.S. Product Safety Law May Need to Be Amended, Senators Say

A law passed two years ago to give the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission more authority to regulate toys sold in the U.S. may need to be revisited next year, one of its Senate authors said.

Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer-protection subcommittee today that he’s already spoken with Representative Joe Barton about making changes next year. Barton is a Texas Republican who may chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Republicans take control of the chamber in January.

“There are ways we can provide flexibility and keep people employed in the private sector and quit talking about products that have never been unsafe and toys that have never caused a problem,” said Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, the subcommittee’s senior Republican.

The CPSC polices more than 15,000 types of consumer goods, from strollers to sports equipment. The agency was criticized in 2007 by lawmakers of both parties for failing to protect consumers, after Chinese-made toys such as Barbie accessories sold by El Segundo, California-based Mattel Inc., the world’s largest toymaker, and RC2 Corp.’s Thomas the Tank Engine trains were recalled for containing paint with high levels of lead.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 passed 424-1 in the House and 89-3 in the Senate. It required, among other provisions, that manufacturers test children’s products to be certain they don’t contain lead or phthalates -- chemicals used to soften plastic that Congress said may be hazardous to the young.

Small Business Impact

The 2008 law gave the CPSC a 48 percent increase in funding, reversing years of budget cuts and reductions in staff. That level of spending may not be sustainable in the face of federal budget deficits, Wicker said.

Witnesses told the Senate panel that the law is putting small companies out of business.

“Our member businesses face extinction,” Jill Chuckas, a board member of the Handmade Toy Alliance, told the Senate Commerce Committee. “Throughout the last two years, we have slowly witnessed many of our members who manufacture products close their businesses, or change their business models as to not include children’s products.”

Changing the law may return the CPSC to the state it was in when it couldn’t detect the Chinese-made toys containing lead paint, said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America.

“Diminishing CPSC’s budget or its authority at this time would hamper the agency from carrying out its primary mission to protect consumers,” Weintraub said.

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